100 inventions that changed America
The course of American history has been changed by countless inventions, from the tiny things that made everyday life different to huge landmark projects that made history. To compile a list of 100 inventions that changed America, Stacker looked at lists like ones from the Atlantic and philosophical STEM brain trust Edge.org along with a healthy dose of food history. The rest is a mix of marquee events like the launch of Sputnik and the invention of the internet and some wildcards that you probably can’t imagine your life without.
What are the parameters here? Well, we’ve left out inventions from before the idea of “America” even existed, so a rough cutoff of the year 1500. Yes, the Gutenberg printing press influenced America, but it already existed when maps first began to reflect Amerigo Vespucci’s name in the 1500s. The compass, many kinds of clocks, many kinds of weapons, the scientific method—these ideas date way back and underpin the development of much of the world, not just America. Eyeglasses and steel already existed.
We can’t promise everything you imagine will be on this list, but the items represent everything from manufacturing and computers to personal care and convenience foods. Ice cream wasn’t invented in the United States, but Thomas Jefferson brought the first recipe known to be made in the U.S. after his travels in France. Some major inventors were known briefly but largely forgotten, like the handwashing pioneer who helped Florence Nightingale save lives during the Crimean War. Other breakthroughs, like aspirin, were only formal inventions following years of, in that case, treatments made from willow bark.
Some of the best ideas aren’t inventions, so you won’t find those here either. Democracy and evolution are great, but we’re sticking with concrete inventions or at least concrete methods, like the calculus that helps describe how real objects act and the notation system people made up to use it. Charles Darwin didn’t invent the idea of evolution, but scientists who began to sequence the human genome invented the techniques and systems to do that laboratory work. Let’s jump in and learn about some important inventions.
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1500s: Math representation
René Descartes invented analytical geometry, and by doing so he put a name and set of notations to different math ideas in a way that brought them together and communicated their relationship. In doing so, he changed the course of history and paved the way for calculus.
1582: Gregorian calendar
The calendar we still use today dates back to 1582, when it replaced and fine-tuned the previous Julian calendar. With 12 months of various lengths and an elaborate formula for the frequency of leap years, the Gregorian calendar keeps us on track with the real length of Earth’s orbit around the sun.
In Classical times, people around the world saw an astonishing amount with the naked eye. But in the early 1600s, Hans Lippershey applied for the first-known patent for a magnifying lens to be fitted into what we now know as the telescope.
1600s: Ice cream
Thomas Jefferson brought ice cream back from France in the very late 1700s, but the food itself dates all the way back to the 17th century in Italy. The original gelato-like formula combined egg custard and sugar, making it both a rich treat and an exemplar of the craze for costly sugar at the time.
What is a microscope if not a telescope in reverse? In fact, telescope inventor Hans Lippershey also filed for a patent on a compound microscope. Just 60 years later, cells were observed and documented for the first time.
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It’s wild to think of calculus as an invention, but at the time it was the subject of heated debate between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. One difference in their very similar ideas is how they chose to notate different parts of their theories. In fact, while the public usually calls Newton the father of calculus, the notation we use is mostly from Leibniz.
1654: Probability theory
Like calculus, probability theory changed the way people looked at the world itself. And probability goes a step further by offering a way to make educated guesses about future events, bringing ideas like forecasting and long-term trends into everyday life.
The piano feels absolutely timeless, but it’s pretty new compared to instruments like the guitar or drums. The first true piano dates back to the early 1700s, when its softly dampened hammers replaced the pluckier, tinnier sound of the harpsichord.
1700s: Moldboard plow
By preparing a certain bread recipe a certain way, bakers were able to make long-lasting supplies that soldiers and sailors could take on long journeys. This was hardtack, which was invented in the 1700s but perfected, so to speak, for the U.S. Civil War.
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